Symphony No. 5 Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven
|1||Allegro con brio||0:06:54||Add to Playlist||Play Now|
|2||Andante con moto||0:09:29||Add to Playlist||Play Now|
|3||Allegro||0:07:40||Add to Playlist||Play Now|
|4||Allegro||0:10:46||Add to Playlist||Play Now|
Beethoven’s Fifth premiered at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, in perhaps the most famously disastrous of Beethoven’s concerts. As usual, there was too much music (this work, the Sixth Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasy and sundry vocal and choral works) and too little rehearsal. In a single day, around four hours of music was tackled by the usual Viennese mixture of professionals and talented amateurs, directed by a largely deaf conductor and soloist, in an unheated venue during one of the coldest spells Vienna had experienced in a long while. No wonder it was a fiasco.
That story has been told many times. What is rarely stressed enough is that in each of his new works for this occasion, Beethoven seems to have gone out of his way to do something strikingly original. The Fourth Piano Concerto plays with the relationship between orchestra and piano as none had before. The symphonies use an unusually large orchestra that includes trombones, contrabassoon and piccolo, none of which had appeared in earlier Viennese symphonies. The symphonies also experiment dramatically with musical form. Beethoven explores how different movements within a symphony might unite to create a greater musical whole than any single structure would. Finally, the Choral Fantasy is unlike anything written before or since: a piano solo that turns into a piano concerto that turns into a grand choral symphony, accompanied by piano. How many innovations can an audience digest in a single evening?
Most of the music heard that night was the work of the previous three years (1805–08). Beethoven had actually begun his Fifth Symphony before the commission for the Fourth Symphony came in. Instead of accepting the usual reputation of the Fourth being “Classical” and the Fifth as “Romantic,” it is perhaps more helpful to see them as a pair, standing together on the threshold between the Classical and Romantic eras. Consider this: Although the opening Allegro con brio of the Fifth blazes with unprecedented violent energy through Beethoven’s brilliant manipulation of its famous opening rhythm, its structure looks back to Haydn and Mozart for models. The Andante con moto is a similar case. Expressively, Beethoven’s variations lead him to some dark and ambiguous moments, troubling meditations that music had rarely addressed. But, once again, the structure is Classical: the double-variation form Haydn loved.
Where Beethoven wholly steps into the Romantic age is in the third and fourth movements, which are bound together so intimately that they really constitute a single movement. Much ink has been spilt trying to describe the effect of Beethoven’s famous transition between them. Eerie, high strings rise out of what seem to be the ruins of the Allegro scherzo and surge into the fiery last movement. For the first time, Beethoven unleashes those extra trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon. And the surprises only continue! Five minutes into his finale, he suddenly reins in his forces and returns to the dark netherworld of that transition. Each of these events is a stunningly original coup de théâter.
As a footnote, it is interesting to consider the trombones. To us, the presence of these great brass instruments is perfectly consonant with our understanding of the Fifth Symphony as a journey from dark to light, from conflict to victory. Yet most of Beethoven’s audience in 1808 would have associated them first with solemn, sacred music; that was one reason Mozart found them so appropriate for his Masonic music. Trombones were the mainstay of church-music ensembles, and would remain so in Germany for most of the 19th century. Perhaps those grand chords at the start of the final movement were intended to be something more than a triumphal fanfare. Beethoven rarely discussed his music in print, so we will never know.